Thoughts: House Of The Dying Sun

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I’ve been following the development of House Of The Dying Sun for a couple of years. Even back then, when it was still called Enemy Starfighter, it had already been in development for quite some time, and the reason for this is that it’s mostly the work of a single ex-Bungie developer. Up until, oh, just over a year ago, House Of The Dying Sun was a pseudo-roguelike arcade space fighter sim where you’d fly around a procedurally generated solar system with your AI-controlled fleet smashing things up and then warping out before powerful reinforcements arrived to smash you up; you’d farm renown through the things-smashing and use this to buy bigger and better ships, and then when you were ready you’d storm the enemy homeworld. However, this iteration of House Of The Dying Sun is a very different game to the House Of The Dying Sun that’s actually been released, which is a very short collection of bitesize scripted missions where you and your space fighter swoop into star systems to assassinate various targets of interest.

I’m mentioning all this for context, since I think without that context House Of The Dying Sun doesn’t make much sense. The paper-thin premise is that the Emperor of the nameless empire you work for has been assassinated,  and because you loved that guy just so dang much you’ve decided to take out all your aggressive feelings on the people responsible. As the Empire’s top starfighter pilot this might be a little difficult to do if, for example, they lived in a well-fortified bunker on a planet surface overseen by layers and layers of combat air patrols and satellite defence stations. Fortunately for you they don’t do this; instead they spend their time flying around in space with only a few poorly armed ships for protection, which means you can jump into the system where they happen to be at the moment in your monstrously powerful attack craft and completely wreck their shit.

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House Of The Dying Sun is split up into 14-odd missions that comprise the single player campaign, plus a challenge mode. At the start of the campaign it’s just you all on your lonesome, but that’s okay because your starfighter massively outclasses most things the enemy can throw at you: it has strong shields, a fair wodge of armour, primary and secondary weapons with unlimited ammo and one or two shots of heavy ordnance (torpedoes and the like). The typical enemy fighter is completely unshielded and there aren’t that many of them, even on higher difficulty levels, so even at the start of the game you’ll absolutely tear them to shreds. Corvettes have shields, but by the time you face them you’ve unlocked anti-shield weaponry for your secondary weapon slot; Destroyers are moderately tough, but by the time you face them you’ve unlocked the upgrade for your main gun that gives it armour-piercing properties against capital ships. It’s only when you start facing Frigates and Carriers that things start to get tough — even here, though, by the time they show up you’ve unlocked a fleet of your own.

You start this process fairly early on by earning two wingmen, who essentially function as extra lives as you can jump in and take control of them if your own fighter gets blown up; I really liked this mechanic, especially since getting three kills of any type will grant you an extra fighter if there’s an empty wingman slot, ensuring that on higher difficulties you’re desperately trying to finish off the last enemy fighter required for another life before your own last fighter gets destroyed. Then you unlock a group of three Destroyers who are mostly there to soak up capital ship fire, and then a single Frigate whose job is to blow up other capital ships. This mini-fleet will jump into every mission with you, and can be given rudimentary orders via a strategic interface; however as House is intended to be played with a controller it’s not the most elegant interface and they were effective enough on their own that I mostly just left them to get on with it. Giving you a companion fleet ensures that your survivability scales correctly in proportion to the increasing numbers of opposition ships you face as you progress further into the campaign. Fittingly for something developed by a Bungie alumni, House has an intelligent set of difficulty levels that alter enemy types and placements as you turn the difficulty up, replacing basic fighters and heavy fighters with corvettes and destroyers that will provide a tougher challenge. The idea is that you’re supposed to go through the campaign once on a low difficulty setting unlocking all of your ships and upgrades, and then come back again to try it on higher difficulty settings when you’ve got your full fleet to back you up.

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As far as the moment-to-moment gameplay of flying around shooting ships is concerned, House is a lot of fun. A lot of fun. It’s an arcade space sim in the vein of Freespace or TIE Fighter that takes a fair amount of inspiration from the CGI battle sequences in Battlestar Galactica. This inspiration ranges from gameplay features like your fighter’s ability to cut the throttle and drift past a target while maintaining your facing towards it so that you can do strafing runs, to the sound effects, which are all muted explosive crumps except for the vibrations that your ship makes, to the music, which is the same percussion-heavy style used by Bear McCreary.  The sound effects (if not the sound design) are particularly good, especially the WHIRRRR whenever you reload your guns and the radio chatter from your fleet. The gameplay fits a controller like a glove, with my only real complaints being that it’s a bit awkward to do drift maneuvers by holding down the left shoulder button, and the lack of a targeting pip telling you how much to lead your shots by leaves you to figure it out by trial and error — there is some auto-aiming involved here as long as you have whatever you’re shooting set as your active target, but it can still be awkward to work out where the sweet spot is. You can choose which guns you take into each mission, but since there are only two primary weapons and three secondary weapons this is a decision that boils down to which flavour of anti-hull and anti-shield weapon you want to play with this time; they’re all quite satisfying to use and each effective in their own niche though.

I’m not really surprised the flying part of House works so well, as it’s the part that has made it across from the previous roguelike iteration of the game completely unchanged. It’s not so rosy for the other parts of House that have been repurposed to serve as a single-player campaign, though; for example, 14 missions might sound like a moderate length for a single player campaign, but the problem is that most of them involve killing a Traitor Lord and then warping back out again, which takes maybe two minutes if you’re really dragging your feet. There are bonus objectives that you can do for extra upgrade points, and once you’ve killed your target a big battleship warps in that you can fight if you want, but this doesn’t take all that much longer to do. This brevity is intimately linked to the simplicity of each mission; there’s zero scripted events and very little to make you shake up your standard operating procedure of shooting everything in sight, and all the mission really does is spawn a bunch of ships at mission start, mark one of them as the target and then leave you to get on with it — as far as the game is concerned it’s entirely hands-off from there. It’s only in the last couple of missions that the formula changes at all, and this is a textbook case of too little and far too late.

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Now, given the time and effort that’s gone into the space shooter part of the game the reason House’s mission structures are so simple — difficulty tuning aside — would be somewhat baffling if I didn’t know about House’s development history. Each of them is basically an authored version of one of the roguelike battles that would have made up the previous version of House, but while that would have had some element of procedural generation and fleet management to fall back on to keep the campaign metagame interesting, all the release version of House has is replaying the missions on higher difficulty settings — and as it turns out this simply isn’t different enough from difficulty level to difficulty level to be truly compelling. I’m not going to gainsay the developer’s decision to ditch the procedural generation in the last year of development and go with this entirely authored approach — I can hardly do so when I’ve spent the last couple of years saying more developers should have the courage to kill their creative darlings if something clearly isn’t working — but there hasn’t been enough time to properly retool the game from one style to another.

As a result the campaign mode for House Of The Dying Sun is a pretty barebones thing. There’s just barely more than the barest minimum of content required to make the game work in its new format, with none of the accoutrements that made the Freespace and TIE Fighter campaigns such enjoyable experiences; no mission briefings, no scripted events where your wingmen turn traitor on you, no DIVE DIVE DIVE HIT YOUR BURNERS PILOT moments to liven things up. It is probably expecting rather too much of a one-man development team to add all of these things, but without them House Of The Dying Sun can’t help but be a somewhat shallow experience. The Challenge Mode is a little interesting since it’s a series of sequential randomly-generated battles of increasing difficulty that show us a glimpse of what the original version of the game was supposed to be, and I think it’s telling that these arguably work better than many of the authored missions in the campaign. Even here, though, I managed to survive for nearly half an hour on my first go and don’t really feel like trying to beat that score, and since the Challenge Mode is all House has outside of the campaign I found myself finished with it after just over three hours of gameplay. It’s a great arcade space sim that’s absolutely crying out for something more to contextualise its deep space melees and to give itself some degree of long-term commitment, but there’s just not enough here to make it more than a dalliance at best.

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